FROM CHIC TO SHABBY, AND BACK Restoration afoot on Champs-Elysees


PARIS -- If you sit in Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysees, sheltered beneath its thick red awning, you can see through the bare winter trees across the street to the Burger King.

It is a long way from here to there, from $5 for a tiny cup of coffee in Fouquet's to less than that for a whole meal in the other place.

They are chiseling up the concrete at the entry to Fouquet's snug terrace to lay a new line of brass plaques for the names of future movie stars.

The Burger King also decorates with movie stars, old black and white photos of the likes of Robert Mitchum, James Dean and Catherine Deneuve.

No one would be surprised if Miss Deneuve walked into Fouquet's. Should she ever appear in the Burger King, they'd probably fall over.

Still, the distance between Fouquet's and "le restaurant du whopper" grows shorter and shorter, a process for which the French have found a word. It is "banalization."

It is on everybody's lips. Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris, used it to describe the Champs-Elysees' slow descent into the realm of the commonplace.

Commonplace? Banal?

They are hardly words associated with the Champs-Elysees, that beautiful avenue lined with sycamores that sweeps down from the majestic Arc de Triomphe to its culmination in the immense plaza at the Place de la Concorde.

It was created in the heart of the French capital in 1667 on the order of Louis XIV, a 2-kilometer extension of the vista from the Louvre Palace, through the Tuileries Gardens up to what is now the Place Charles de Gaulle.

The Champs-Elysees was a magnet from the start for the fashionable people of Paris, and for tourists foreign and French. It was a venue for the wealthy, aristocratic and artistic, for slinky women and men who wore their coats as capes. It is the street down which many a victorious army marched in pride and splendor, not all of them French.

Chic. That is the more familiar adjective one thinks of in connection with this street. And if you came from a place that didn't have any chic, and wanted to know what it was, this was where you found out.

Chic no more

Not any more. At least not so much. The Champs-Elysees, over the past 10 years or so, simply became too popular. Too many people, not chic by anybody's definition, have been drawn to the glittery artery through Paris' Eighth Arrondissement. The neighbors have complained.

Abdo Belmehdi, the earnest young deputy manager of the Burger King, is not at all unhappy about the way things have gone.

Change, he says philosophically, is everywhere. "It's the same over on the Boulevard San Michel, the Left Bank, it's the same all over Paris."

He looks out of his shop, across toward Fouquet's. "All kinds of people come here now," he said. "They say that this is banalization. The people who live near the Champs don't like the change. They have something in their heads, an image of 10 years ago. But it is different now."

Mr. Belmehdi looks again into the wintry street. "There's nothing wrong with it," he says. "It is still the most beautiful avenue in the world."

But for some there are too many leather jackets around late at night, too many motorcycles, too many teen-agers, too many garish signs on the buildings, too many tawdry shops, too many street vendors, and far, far too many cars.

There are no longer any top-ranked hotels on the street since the sumptuous Claridge closed in 1977, a place Cole Porter celebrated in an unpublished song:

That building there, upon the right,

Is the famous Hotel Claridge.

It's where the ladies go at night,

When they get fed up with marriage.

Now the Claridge has a shopping arcade on the ground floor and offers furnished rooms in the upper stories.

And there are on the avenue more airline offices than one would think there are airlines, and automobile dealerships, pizza places, movies, video arcades and fast-food restaurants. If the Champs-Elysees was ever about something, it wasn't fast food.

How did it happen?

There are various answers to that. One is the special subway service that opened about 10 years ago into the suburbs. It gave fast, efficient commuter service -- as well as ready access to the city center -- to tens of thousands of suburban youths looking for a place to hangout.

Where better than the Champs-Elysees?

Tourists came, as they always did. But the big package tours of the late 1970s and 1980s brought millions of foreigners without too much money to spend, and Americans with weak dollars.

They, and the suburban youngsters, were the perfect clientele for the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and various French imitators.

All of this coincided with the withdrawal in the late 1980s of the prodigal Arab princelings, who used to come to squander their oil money in the designer shops, such as Vuitton, for luggage, and Guerlain, for perfume, and all the other shops adorned by the pricey product logos of our times.

With all these forces working on it, the old Champs-Elysees just went down market, as they say.

A renaissance

So what is being done?

The man with the answer to that is Patrick Pognant, a serious, dark-haired young architect with a thin face and a tight smile. He agrees with Mr. Belmehdi that change is evident everywhere in Paris. But the Champs-Elysees? It was special from the start; he hopes to make it so again, "to bring the prestige back."

Mr. Pognant runs Project Champs-Elysees, the $35 million plan to return the street to its former glory. It started at the end of last year and will finish, if all goes well, by 1994.

The heavy equipment is already deployed, planting trees, scooping out chambers for some 850 underground parking spaces, nearly 500 more than the allowable number above ground today. The din, where the crews are at work, is unbearable.

Mr. Pognant described his assignment at first as "interesting," then, struggling against his natural reserve, went so far as to call it "passionate."

"It's because of the history of the street, you know."

Project Champs-Elysees will sweep away most of the cars. Parking will be banned on the avenue and on the parallel roads. These will be repaved for pedestrians. About 250 trees are being planted, two rows of them running down from the Arc de Triomphe.

The exquisite gardens beyond, which go down to the Place de la Concorde, will be dressed up. New street furniture will be put in, benches, kiosks, Morris columns, those tubular billboards probably as emblematic of Paris as the Eiffel Tower.

New building codes are ready. The famous outdoor cafes, the terraces, will be "homogenized," as Mr. Pognant put it. They all have to come down for the sidewalk to be repaved. When they go back up, they will be in the traditional Parisian style, with slanting awnings.

The garish signs that detract from the architectural style of the Champs-Elysees' buildings will not be allowed. And a number of the buildings will be declared historic monuments. Among them will be the old Guerlain building, what remains of the Claridge Hotel, and even an exquisite stairway at 79 Champs-Elysees. Not included is 92 Champs-Elysees, a remnant of a fine old house, ruined by the installation of a cinema on the ground floor. Thomas Jefferson lived there when he was the U.S. minister of state in France from 1785 to 1789.

The owners of buildings declared historic cannot make changes without adhering to rigid codes. This gives the authorities a certain control over the aspect of the avenue. It is their principal weapon to defend the Parisian cityscape, and they sometimes employ it with ingenuity.

Take Fouquet's. It is likely that more famous people have gone into that restaurant than have got into heaven. James Joyce, the Irish writer, used to spend his afternoons there.

Not long ago it was declared a historic monument, not because it inhabits a very old or special building, but because a potential foreign buyer wanted to close it. The prospect of the Champs-Elysees without Fouquet's was too much. The moment the threat had passed, however, the restaurant was "declassified."

Mr. Pognant says the reaction to Project Champs-Elysees has been mixed but generally positive. One of its aims, however -- "to encourage appropriate economic activities" -- has engendered suspicion in some quarters that Mr. Pognant and his colleagues want to change not only the look of the avenue, but the kinds of people who come there.

The architect betrays a sensitivity to the question. "Even a store that sells, say, eyeglasses, and even if it is part of a chain, would be all right," he said, if it conforms to the new regulations on facades.

And fast-food restaurants?

Suddenly his face is full of pain. "We do not have the power to close them," he said, adding quickly that they don't really want to do that and don't have to because they were not growing. But he left the impression, without saying it, that their future on the Champs-Elysees is limited.

Mr. Belmehdi sniffs at the suggestion that Project Champs-Elysees has an unegalitarian aim. "This kind of place [Burger King] is welcome here and always will be. It allows the people who come here to the avenue a choice of what they want to eat. If there were only traditional restaurants, there would be no choice."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad